A Case For The Greatest NHL Player: Mario Lemieux

John MarshallContributor IJuly 2, 2010

Mario Lemieux spent his entire career fighting health problems. Whether it was his on-going battle with back pain, cancer, or an irregular heart-beat, the Magnificent One never played at 100 percent. That is why I have taken upon the duty to make the case that Mario Lemieux, not Wayne Gretzky, was the greatest hockey player in NHL history.

Lemieux boasted a combination of physical skills unmatched in the history of hockey. His effortless stride, exceptional hands and extraordinary reach made him the best one-on-one player ever. Like a maestro, he artfully dictated the tempo of the world's fastest game.

While Wayne Gretzky seemed to always know where the puck was going, and Bobby Orr played like the puck was attached to his stick, Lemieux's skill was the ability to make the game go at his pace. He could humiliate defenders with dazzling moves or hypnotize them by not moving at all.

For a big man he was elusive. Lemieux would cruise down the ice, legs barley moving, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Once in perfect position, his lightning-quick hands would reward an open line-mate with a feathered pass. Or he'd snap a laser shot past a surprised goalie, one who'd likely been the victim of Lemieux's magnificence dozens of times.

Some hockey fans will look at Mario Lemieux’s total statistics and scoff at the argument I’m making.

-          7th all time in total points

-          9th in goals

-          10th in assists

-          4th in short-handed goals

-          6th in power play goals

You could look purely at those numbers and say that “No, Mario Lemieux is not the greatest player of all-time”. However, that would be foolish, as Mario Lemieux only played in 915 games. Gretzky played in 1,487 games. 

Now take a look at these stats and tell me Lemieux should not at least be grouped with Gretzky in the discussion for greatest of all-time.

-          2nd in points per game (Gretzky is 1st)

-          2nd in goals per game (min. 500 games)(Gretzky is 4th)

-          2nd in assists per game (Gretzky is 1st)

-          1st in goals per game in playoffs (Gretzky is 2nd)

Lemieux also had a higher power-play goals per game and short-handed goals per game. Go ahead and check, I’ll wait.

Take the stats I just presented to you and remember that Lemieux did it while injured. It’s been said that after his forth year, Lemieux couldn’t even tie his own skates his back problems were so bad.

You also have to take in to account that Lemieux improved the players around him more than Gretzky did his. Take the two players that spent the majority of their time with Lemieux and Gretzky, Kevin Stevens and Jari Kurri.

In Jari Kurri’s 8 year stint alongside Wayne Gretzky he averaged an impressive 1.41 points per game. In the two seasons after he was separated from the Great One he still managed an excellent 1.27 points per game.

In Kevin Steven’s 4 years playing with Mario Lemieux he averaged 1.3 points per game. However, in the two years after playing with Lemieux he could only muster 0.68 points per game.

For those who are only casual fans of hockey, a close comparison might just be the great Jim Brown, another legend whose total statistics would have been higher if he had played more games.

I will of course be accused of hating on Gretzky. Though, that is not what I am doing at all. All I am trying to accomplish is to inform hockey fans of information that is left out when media talks of the greatest of all-time and to spark conversation with those that disagree.

Am I saying you’re wrong if you disagree? Of course not. Hockey is a game where things can be taken in different ways.

And if you’re a true hockey fan, this article got you thinking.